As artist in residency stints go, two concerts are about as short as you can get, but Andrew Manze’s return to the Liverpool Philharmonic was both widely anticipated and worth waiting for. When Manze last appeared with the orchestra it was clear that the performers enjoyed working with him and the results were equally well appreciated by the audience. The rapport was still very much in evidence in both this weeks concerts, and although audiences were disappointing in numbers the response was very enthusiastic.
After the previous week’s Phil concerts celebrating Britten’s own music, Manze had chosen to construct his two programmes around music from some of those whose work had inspired Britten - Purcell, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and Mozart.
On Saturday, Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson joined the orchestra in a performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations, which was framed by Schumann’s Faust Overture (small but perfectly formed here) and Mahler’s 4th Symphony.
The Britten Song Cycle after Rimbaud is set for “high voice” and is more well known sung by a tenor (most famously of course by Peter Pears) but Larsson made the songs very much her own. With tremendous stage presence she inhabited the strange and shifting emotional world of the poems beautifully and made the very best of the sometimes skittish, often sumptuous settings to connect with the audience in a way that made it feel she was singing to us individually. I don’t remember feeling this well communicated to by a singer since Felicity Palmer peformed Ravel’s Scheherezade. The orchestra supported her with great poise and delicious textures.
Mahler 4 has a curious structure for its scale and needs a conductor who can give it some shape, and Andrew Manze had a very clear vision for it. It had all the dramatic sweep it needed without any of the histrionics it sometimes falls foul of and the Ruhevoll third movement was ravishing. Larsson had of course returned for the Des Knaben Wunderhorn text of the final movement and was able here to show yet another style of delivery in her coquettish portrayal of a child with more than a little wonder in its eyes.
Such a shame that a rare false alarm from the hall’s fire system, barely a couple of seconds after the final notes died away, deprived the performers of their applause.
Thursday saw Andrew Manze back with a programme of Schubert, Schumann and Mozart, with two tiny Purcell arrangements thrown in for good measure. This concert will receive a repeat performance the following evening.
Manze once again displayed his ability to beguile an audience with a fresh take on the familiar. Schubert’s early symphony No 3 was given tremendously elegant treatment here. Tremendously stylish playing too from a pared down orchestra that still gave a rich sonority. The centre movements can all too often end up sounding like something played by a musical clock, but here we were transported to a fashionable Austrian ballroom. A rare treat.
Similarly affecting and unaffected was Ronald Brautigam’s rendering of Schumann’s Piano Concerto with a matching understated accompaniment from the orchestra. No bravura or overt romanticism in this performance, but just a lot of really smooth and measured playing from both orchestra and soloist. Many pianists will milk this concerto for drama and pound out the tunes, but Brautigam found limpid delicacy in it and the notes flowed from the keys in liquid fashion.
In a reference to Britten’s love of Purcell the interval was followed by two miniatures - Andrew Manze’s own highly original arrangement of the Funeral Music for Queen Mary and Britten’s orchestration of the Chacony in G Minor – but they hid themselves almost like a pair of painted miniatures tucked between some full scale canvases in a gallery.
I had not exactly been enthusiastic to hear Mozart’s 40th Symphony (it’s not one of my favourite things) but Manze’s magic worked on this too and it presented itself to me in a new light. Again there was real style in the phrasing and some rhythms that could almost have got my two left feet dancing. The hall may not have been full (it’s that word “Britten” in the concert title that unaccountably puts people off I fear) but the crowd made some noise at the end and were joined by the Orchestra in applauding Andrew Manze, who I think we all hope to see again. Last time he was here floods from a burst water main had blown the power to Hope Street and with our rogue fire alarm this week he may be feeling cursed, but hopefully the response to this performance will convince him that we’re not trying to scare him away...